When Tyler got up the next day, there was a fresh laptop waiting for her, and the recovery disk she’d burned. She looked at the DVD like it was Pandora’s Box, and if she inserted it into the laptop, she’d unleash a whole new raft of woes into a world that was already packed with them. Finally, she steeled herself and popped the disk in. No tears in the fabric of time and space, or insectoid invaders, or spasms of new Personal Hygiene issues that could only be solved by buying expensive chemical products appeared.
Tyler trudged out to breakfast. Barb asked Tyler if she was okay. “ahhh… yeah. It was just… it was just weird, seeing it like that. I… didn’t know that I’d been screaming.”
"Hughie was your best friend,” Barb said, suddenly realizing that for a slight kid like Tyler, socially isolated by his rampant intellect, Hugh Fienberg may have been his only friend. “It would have been weird if you didn’t scream.”
The other ‘Yellowjackets’ gathered around Tyler, and Tyler showed them footage from the as-yet unaired episodes just before and after the La Isla Maldita incident. Tyler made a point of showing both the raw uncut footage, and the carefully edited post-production version, highlighting how Lennox could change, either subtly or jarringly, the emphasis of any footage. He showed how Logan Hogan had handled one situation a lot more reasonably, with his temper and frustration building a lot more sympathetically in the raw footage, than in the post-production version. “Why does Logan put up with that?”
"To be honest, I think that Loogie’s only just starting to pick up on it,” Tyler admitted. “I mean, he makes ME look like ‘Mister Social Skills’. And I am, like, Captain Clueless when it comes to personal stuff. When it does register for him, he is gonna be PISSED. I hope and pray that he’s safely at MIT, and nowhere near the Diogenes when it happens, ‘cause if he’s anywhere near the boat- BOOM! Never piss off a chemical genius.”
"Okay, now that you found what Jadis Diabolik wanted-” Holly started to ask.
"Frost,” Tyler corrected her, “she’s very touchy about that.”
"Okay, now that you found what Jadis FROST wanted, what are you gonna do?”
"Well, she said that I wasn’t off the hook yet,” Tyler said. “So, I gotta find something that will maybe not prove that I didn’t do it- that’s called ‘Proving a Negative’, and it’s difficult, going on impossible- but if I can find something that will prove that what really happened was different than what they’re saying happened, then they have to stop coasting on the obvious and take a look at it.” Prove a negative. It would take a genius to do that, Tyler mused. Someone cold, analytic and ruthless. Like a THX user…
"Okay, that sucks, but what do you have to do, to do that?” Ray asked. He paused, reviewed his question and decided that he’d worded it right.
Tyler slumped and looked confused and overwhelmed. “That IS the problem. What can I prove?”
Jake gestured to Mike, who put his hand on Jake’s forehead. “Jake says ‘Go with your strengths’. Start with the thing that you can understand: the gizmo that killed Leo. Where did it come from? How did it work? Why did he pick Leo? What would whoever did it have to do, to make it all happen?”
Tyler sat back and looked blank for a moment. “Oh. So THIS is what Conan Doyle doing when he kept having Watson say obvious stuff to Holmes- sometimes you get so wrapped up in details and complexity that you forget about the simple questions.”
"Okay, here’s a simple question,” Barb said. “WHY did whoever shove Leo into that thing? WHY would they want to turn Leo into a girl? I mean… what’s the point?”
Tyler sat back and thought intently. “Y’know… I don’t remember anything about Leo changing sex, either genetically or anatomically. And that’s the kind of thing they’d mention. Hell, they’d scream about it. And the only reason that they knew that it was the Malice Upgrade that had been used was that Dr. Chase immediately recognized certain distinctive nanite chains.”
"You guys analyzed the tissues from Leo’s body?” Ray asked.
"On the Diogenes?” Tyler snorted. “Just try and stop us.”
"Why would they use a super-soldier thing for girls on boys at all?” Holly asked.
"Well, the FBI’s story is that I’m a secret gender-bender, and that I stole a sample of the Malice Upgrade from Dr. Chase somehow because I wanted to turn myself into a girl,” Tyler said, clearly working over that angle in her head. “But if that was my point behind the whole thing, then using it on Leo would logically be to see if I could turn him into a girl, and the mess he turned into was the result of using a XX-biased nanite suite on a XY-biased organism. But that would start with the sex-genes, and work from there!”
"Is that what you needed?” Holly asked eagerly.
"No, not yet,” Tyler said. “But it’s a DAMN good beginning, Mittens!”
Jake nodded at Mike again. Mike ‘listened’ and said, “Nate wants to know where the super-soldier things they changed you in came from?”
"Oh, they were both kludged together from bits and pieces of gear from various projects and other equipment aboard the Diogenes. The main compartment from Leo’s adaptation chamber was one of Linda Havoc’s ‘High Definition MRI Scan’ projects.”
Jake nodded, and Mike said, “Okay, but where did the second chamber come from?”
That one really stopped Tyler. “You’re right- there’s no way that anyone could bash together another chamber aboard the Diogenes. The FBI was all over the place, we were being watched like hawks, and the equipment was under strict lockdown- we couldn’t even work on our legit projects, except on computer models for weeks! So, where DID it come from?”
"Do the two chambers look alike?” Barb asked, clearly channeling too many ‘girl detective’ books. “Like, maybe whoever jumped you didn’t jump Leo; he was just using what happened to Leo as a cover, to get you off the ship?”
"I have no idea what the second chamber looks like,” Tyler admitted. “The first thing that happened when I woke up was a pair of FBI goons trying to buffalo me into a confession, and from there into Solitary Confinement with the occasional break for a Federal Defender. But if they are different, you’re right, that could be very telling.” What Tyler didn’t tell Barb was that the odds of a second perpetrator were very low, on multiple facets of the issue. But still, Barb still did have one very telling point: why would anyone pick Leonardo Bautista Rivera y Pereya for their test subject? As a test subject, he was no more suitable than anyone else on the boat. But if the reason wasn’t Unethical Experimentation, but Murder for the sake of removing Leo from the ship… then it still didn’t work. It was too big, too elaborate, and anyone smart enough to pull it off would know that it would be simple, safer, smarter and more effective to simply tamper with one or more bits of Leo’s gear, or to just trip him the next time that the Wiz Kids found themselves in harm’s way.
Tyler was about to access the Quest Foundation’s database, when an inset chimed, telling him that someone wanted a video conference. Expecting Mr. Dunmore or Jadis Frost, she accepted the link. But, “Suzy?”
Suzy Becker scowled at the unfamiliar face on her screen and asked, [Excuse me, but I was trying to get in touch with Tyler Collier-]
"And you did, Suze.”
[I meant the Tyler Collier who’s connected to the Quest Foundation Advanced Studies Program.]
"You did. I-” Tyler realized that Suzy- indeed, probably all the rest of the Wiz Kids- hadn’t been told of the Malice Complex’s gender shift function. Thinking quickly for something that a smart aleck wouldn’t know to punk Suzy with, Tyler asked, “So, Suze, did you ever figure out the catalyst for the Red Shift cascade that was bugging the hell out of you?”
Barbara wished that she had her smartphone, so she could get a shot of Suzy ‘I’m such a Genius!’ Becker with a look of dumb blonde bewilderment on her face. Not that it stopped her from bubbling over with fangirl excitement.
[TYLER?” Suzy yelped, “What HAPPENED to you?]
"The same thing that probably happened to Leo,” Ty answered, “we got injected with a reverse-engineered version of the Malice Upgrade complex, which apparently includes getting turned into a version of Dr. Chase. Well, at least, that’s what happened to ME. Why Leo went ‘Toxic Avenger’ instead of this? I don’t know- YET.”
"Yeah, my lawyer has managed to wrangle access to the Quest Foundation database, and I’m reviewing everything that I can to give the FBI a reason to think that anyone but me did all of that.”
[You’re KIDDING,]Suzy said, giving him the ‘disappointed big sister’ scowl. [You’re going to play amateur detective? What do you think the FBI is going to do?]
"Hopefully, get off their procedural asses and do a REAL investigation, instead of just rubber stamping me ‘Guilty As Hell!’”
[TY, they have NOTHING on you. And even if they do, what are they gonna do? You’re a Minor!]
"Truly spoken like someone who isn’t looking at spending the rest of her life in a reinforced concrete BOX in Argentina!”
[Argentina?] Tyler spelled out what Jadis Frost had explained to her. [You’re taking advice from Jadis Diabolik?] Suzy recoiled in disappointment tinged with disdain.
"Frost,” Tyler corrected her. “She’s kinda touchy about the ‘Diabolik’ thing.”
[Yeah, and I imagine that the rest of the HITLER family was kind of touchy about their wacky cousin Adolf!]
"Hey, she got me out of Solitary Confinement, hooked me up with a kickass lawyer, and got me into Physical Therapy,” Tyler retorted. “She did more for me in two hours than all the Public Defenders were able to do in two weeks!”
[Physical therapy? Why would you need Physical Therapy?]
"Luke!” Tyler called, “Throw me that Co-ord Ball?” Luke tossed Tyler a dodge-ball sized ball used for helping the kids get used to retraining their reflexes. Tyler caught it with both hands. The ball popped like a soap bubble. “That ball was rated for over a thousand kilograms of force. And I didn’t want to do that. I expected to, but I didn’t want to.” Then Tyler explained to Suzy about Project: Square One, which wasn’t secret, but was definitely a low-profile effort.
[And how do you know that Jadis Diabolik wasn’t scamming you with that, hah?] Suzy demanded. [That’s sort of what she DOES.]
"Because not even Jadis Diabolik, with all her renowned cunning, could construct a scenario like the one that the guards and other official types threw at me. Suze, this is NOT a ‘Mission Impossible’ scenario, Tom Cruise is NOT going to drop out of the ceiling, this laptop is NOT going to melt down when you log off. I am here FOR REAL. I am going to be a fucking girl for the rest of my life. Period. This is NOT gonna peel off. If I am very lucky- no, if I am very smart and really sweat blood, I may just be able to leave this place and deal with all the embarrassing parts of being a girl, instead of a piece of meat in an Argentine cooler.”
Suzy rolled her eyes and gave out a low groan. [Oh PLEASE! I’m not saying that what happened didn’t happen; I’m saying that Jadis Diabolik is putting some screwy mindful- er, game on it. You’re scared and grabbing at the first thing that offers you any hope. CLASSIC con game material. The FBI is NOT trying to set you up, they’re PROS.]
"Suzy, even as we speak, I’m surfing for the laws regarding Unwarranted Experimentation on Human Beings, and from what I’m finding, it’s just what Jadis Frost said. And the laws regarding Murder in International Waters? Well! Defaults to the victim’s Nation of birth. Just like Frost said.”
"SUZE, either it’s just like Frost says, in which case I need to bust my hump to stay out of Prison, or she’s already got what she came for.”
[What?] Suzy bleated.
"Last night I found some footage that Lennox had doctored on the La Isla Maldita expedition. That was her price for all this. Right now, the evidence is with the base Commander, and it’s gonna be sealed by a Notary and sent to the Department of Justice.”
[What? What did you find?]
"Like I said, Lennox doctored some footage-”
[So What? He’s a Film Editor! That’s what he DOES!]
"Suze, he didn’t just edit the sequences, he CHANGED the images in the sequence, mostly to hide the fact that Hughie, Tom and Linda had to use the Q-Wings because someone had taken the third Zodiac. That’s Tampering with Evidence,” Tyler pointed out. “Hughie DIED because of that.”
Suzy slumped, looked up to heaven and gave out a long low martyred groan. [OKAY! FINE! BE that way! Look if you’re gonna play Nan-er… Detective, at least keep in touch with someone out here in what we laughingly call the Real World]
[Well, everyone’s treating me like Leo’s widow, but nobody really gets how I feel.] Suzy said more soberly [But you? You know just how I feel. You were like a zombie for weeks after… after the Isla Maldita. It hurt, just looking at you. There’s no way that you could do anything as cold-blooded as using anyone as a guinea pig, even if you thought they’d survive it] Suzy gave Tyler a sad look. [And while we’re on that topic, how’re you doing? I mean, aside from the whole… girl… thing? I mean, you had your entire body- okay, most of your body- replaced and recast. How are you doing?]
Tyler shrugged. “Well, the entire point of the Malice Upgrade is to make you stronger and tougher. By the time that Dr. Chase got… upgraded, the nutjob who spliced it together had gotten almost all the bugs out of the process. And it would take a Mack truck to knock Dr. Chase down. My physical therapist never even talked about any physical problems I’d have, only my adjusting to my new body. If there was any sign that the upgrade was going sideways on me, the FBI would have played the ‘Confess and get it off your chest’ card. They haven’t. Given all that, I’d say that I’m going to be okay. Of course, it could just mean that I’ll spend a very long time in Solitary.”
[Okay, but have they been doing re-tests?]
"Constantly, but they don’t tell me what they’re testing for. Suzy, did you get a good look at the adaptation chamber they found me in?”
[Yeah! As a matter of fact, I was the one who found the leak that caused the overload]
"Okay, but how similar were the two chambers? I haven’t been able to get any pictures or diagrams of the two for comparison.”
[Oh, they were identical, the same jury-rigged mess of this an’ that] Suzy said, [Which makes it really weird; we assumed that they snitched stuff here and there and used the mandatory backups we have for everything to cover up the theft. That worked for Leo’s chamber. But where did the second chamber come from? And how were you supposed to kit-bash all of that together after what happened with Hughie? When you weren’t all ‘Walking Dead’, you were working like a fiend, trying to not think about it! And you had an alibi for when Leo was found]
"Suzy, having an alibi for when Leo was found doesn’t mean anything,” Tyler pointed out. “The problem is that you were the last person who saw him alive, and there’s this big fuzzy period between then and when we noticed that he wasn’t around. And the way that that chamber was hidden, if it hadn’t been for that nutrient spill, the only way we would have found him was when he started to stin- er, um, it became obvious.”
[Okay, but how are you supposed to have kludged together another chamber? They were watching us like hawks! And according to Beebe, there was no pilferage after Leo was found.]
Tyler grimaced and gave a wide ‘who knows?’ shrug. “I hate to sound all Agatha Christie, Suze, but that’s what all this hinges on: where the adaptation chambers came from, and how the Perp was able to build a second one with all the FBI types crawling all over the place. When we figure that bit out, it’ll probably lead directly to the Killer.
"Suze, do you know if Logan compared the nanite suite that killed Leo with the one that changed me?”
[Sorry, Ty, but by then the Old Folks were in totally out of ‘Scientific Inquiry’ mode and into ‘Cover Our Corporate Asses’ mode. I dunno anything about the suite that changed you. Not that I wouldn’t love to.] And the thought came again, that if Tyler forced herself into a THX fugue, she’d figure it out, and she’d be off the hook.
Then Rachel came to take Tyler to Physical Therapy. Tyler wasn’t up to doing any fine manipulation of solid objects, but ironically the computer work she’d been doing was giving her hand-eye coordination some good practice. Well, she wasn’t throwing the blocks she was trying to stack anymore. Or at least not hard enough to shatter the wooden blocks. Tyler was working on stacking large empty cardboard boxes when Jubal came to tell him that it was ‘outside play’ time. “’Play Outside Time?’” Tyler echoed with scorn.
"Oh, if you want to keep stacking boxes, you go right ahead,” Jubal said with a smirk. “It’s probably good practice, ‘cause when you get out of prison, it’ll be the only job you can get.”
Tyler paused to wonder how such a jackass could possibly get a job working with kids, let alone on a project that clearly had very high hiring standards. Then it clicked for Ty; none of the other kids that Jubal worked with were geniuses. They were average kids. Now it was all-too familiar for Tyler; she’d been coping with jealousy about her intellect all her life, from kids her own age, from kids who were older than she was and from adults. It was the older kids who really got their noses all out of joint. The same reflexes and perceptions that made Jubal good with other kids set him against her. And Jubal and Tyler were just the right ages where both the ‘Too-Smart Kid’ adult squick and the ‘Smarter Younger Kid’ jealousy factored in. Tyler just crushed the cardboard box against Jubal’s chest and walked past him, mentally consigning him to the ‘Annoying Asshole’ cubbyhole.
Tyler let Ray help her on with her long thick yellow overcoat, and went out with the other kids. Tyler looked up into the clear blue sky again and felt herself relax a little. Well, maybe the Pros had a point: she should break up her research binges, kick back, play a few games and get to know the kids. The very last thing she needed was to drive herself into academic burnout on this. Besides, you hear too many stories where a researcher is grinding away at a problem, but the pieces only fit together when they’re doing something else.
"HEY! COCKHOUND!” snarled a furious voice. Tyler turned and saw the Redcoats approaching her in bullying formation.
"Oh, you gotta be kiddin’ me,” Tyler muttered.
"What d’you think you’re doing?” Razor demanded of Tyler.
"Looking up at the sky,” Tyler said simply, ignoring him as best she could, even as she knew that it was no use.
"You think you’re SLICK or somethin’?” Razor demanded. “You think that you can come here and trick us into thinkin’ that yer a GIRL and get away with it?”
"Not on OUR Yard!” Jojo snapped.
"YEAH!” Hubie said dully.
Stretch prattled something rambling and non-linear about back doors and deep throats and fruitcakes, probably trying to cobble together some sort of nasty crack, but making a hash of it. “YEAH!” Hubie repeated with less conviction, but needing to say something, anything.
Tyler just gave the crowd of bullies a cold, disgusted look. They were trying to push her into something, anything. All she had to do was ignore them. They were being monitored; whoever threw the first punch would be the one in the wrong. Tyler just canted her head back and looked up into the blue sky, letting Razor’s crew yammer until they realized that they looked like idiots.
"Y’see?” Jubal demanded of Becky, watching the Redcoats bait Tyler from a distance. “We have GOT to get that freak out of the Yellow Silo. Y’see how it’s provoking the Redcoats?”
"And having her in the Red Silo would calm those punks down HOW?” Becky asked archly.
"Having someone like that here could ruin us!” Jubal kept at it. “You know how Congress is: they get props for funding programs like this, and the second they stop getting props for it, they get props by ‘economizing’ and cutting the funding. When the Media hears about that happened with that Rivera kid, our low profile is BLOWN!”
"And moving her to the Red Silo will make that better HOW?”
"The Wiz Kids program is a big cash cow for the Quest Foundation. They are not gonna like us coddling their bad apple.”
"Jubal, you keep making noises like Tyler’s already been convicted. From what I’ve heard, she hasn’t even been charged, let alone arrested.”
"That’s a formality,” Jubal snarled. “It’s guilty as hell, and everyone knows it. The FBI says they’ve got a slam-bang case against it.”
"Then why haven’t they pressed charges?” Becky asked. “Hell, chucking her in the Red Silo could have queered their case but good. The only reason they’d do that before they pressed charges was that they were trying to buffalo Tyler into some kind of confession.”
"AND, they’d only do that if they don’t have a case, but Tyler’s the only suspect they’ve got. Or, at any rate, the only suspect who doesn’t have- or didn’t have- influential patrons backing her up. Jadis Diabolik is interested in her, and she’s brought in a high-powered lawyer.”
"JADIS DIABOLIK?” Jubal gaped, “I thought that was just a whack rumor! Oh, now I KNOW that that Collier freak is guilty!”
"Jube,” Becky groaned, “if you knew anything about Jadis Diabolik, you’d know that her first rule is ‘Never Do Anything Illegal or Actionable’! The reason she’s gotten away with what she has, is that it was technically legal and non-actionable. Now ask yourself: why would a woman who keeps that sharp an eye on the exact wording of the Law extend herself for a kid who used another kid as a guinea pig?”
"Because the Collier freak is a genius!” Jubal hissed. “If she gets Collier out from under this, then she’ll have on tap a genius who’s capable of murder, and has super-strength on top of everything else!”
"Look, like I said, Collier’s a genius! Assholes like that think that they can out-think the rest of the world. Putting that freak away could be the only thing that saves millions of lives. But like I said, that’s a slam-dunk.”
"I wouldn’t put too much stock into that,” Becky said. “Yesterday, Tyler found something in that footage she was going through. Jadis Diabolik had me take the entire laptop to the Legal Office and have the base notary seal it. They’re sending a bonded courier to take it to the Department of Justice in Washington on the next VTOL out of here.”
"WHAT?” Jubal yelped, “You mean, that freak is getting off, and you’re helping it?” With that, he pulled himself deeper in to his jacket and walked away in a huff.
"Jubal!” Becky called after him. “Dammit, you’re so torked off about her being a genius that you’re acting like an idiot!”
For the next few days, Tyler split her time between going over the files that the Justice Department would let her view, doing Physical Therapy, and getting a feel for what the other kids in the Yellow Silo were going through. Ray, as the oldest and the one with the most time in the Silo, was the undeclared leader. But he was on his last week there, and he was getting a hold on his dynamorph. Which was good, because Tyler’s research into them suggested that while dynamorphs could be removed from their hosts, it wasn’t anything even vaguely like pleasant. But Ray was looking beyond himself; he was looking to Tyler to fill in his shoes when he took the VTOL back to civilization. Besides being a genius, Tyler had a lot of experience, which Ray subtly (for a 16 year old boy) suggested would give Ty a hand in keeping the rest under control.
As for Tyler’s research, she’d hit a plateau. The only thing that she’d found that was really suggestive was that there was nothing to explain the Stem Cell re-growth medium that the adaptation chamber would have needed to replace almost every cell in Tyler’s body. The literature on such processes suggested that something like that would require six times Tyler’s weight to accomplish the replacement and adaptation. But where did it come from? Yes, there were several geniuses on board who could have re-mixed any of several liquid compounds to serve that purpose; but it would still need physical mass, and there was nothing missing that would explain where it came from. The remaining units of stem cell medium had been found in 5 gallon plastic jugs. But where had the syrup itself come from? This was STUPID! Why couldn’t she figure it out? She was running out of time! Maybe… maybe if she worked herself up, got really mad, she’d trigger a THX fugue… but that would be dangerous…
Tyler was mulling this over as the other kids, who’d gotten sort of used to her, were doing… stuff. Tyler felt that she’d gone as far as she reasonably could that day, and maybe get in a little… stuff with the kids before Leslie came to drag her off for more ball-crunching and box-stacking. But just as Tyler was saving her work, her laptop rang that she had an incoming call. Hoping that it was Jadis Frost or Mr. Dunmore with news that they’d found a smoking gun somewhere, she accepted the call. [Hey, Ty!] Suzy Becker chirped from the inset window, [What’s new?]
"Well, the Justice Department finally sent me a zip file with the footage of you guys finding Leo.”
"Hey, I wasn’t there when you found him, remember?”
[Lucky you,] Suzy made a disgusted face [I swear, when we opened it… I wouldn’t do that to Missy Tomlin, and she’s been a burn on my butt since Pre-K!]
"Yeah, well, there are some things that don’t make sense about that.”
"Where did the Stem Cell fluid that they used to replace my displaced cells come from? According to these notes, it was completely unbiased stem cell matter; not surgical grade stem cells, but still unbiased stem cells. That stuff is expensive, but it still comes down to ‘where did they HIDE it?”
[Tyler,] Suzy said with a knowing smirk, [you know how it is with anything that’s made contraband: the second that it’s made illegal, the price jumps 500%. There are a dozen effective, if not FDA-grade, ways of cloning stem cells, using any of six different base methods. Odds are that what they used on you were adipose-based adult stem cells. And I happen to know that there are three people- that I know of- on the Diogenes who crank that crap out by the half-liter, for walking around money. I’m not mentioning any names, what they’re doing is a victimless crime, and nobody even connected with the ship could ever be accused of anything shoddy. The odds are, the juice they used to change you was made on the ship]
"Okay, then why didn’t they find the ‘still’- or whatever you call a bootleg stem cell conversion lab- when they searched the ship? And if they made the entire amount beforehand, then broke down the lab into components and hid them among the inventory- then why didn’t we find any traces of the stash?”
[Ty, you’re not asking questions that the FBI hasn’t asked. If we knew that, we’d probably know who did it] Suzy perked up [But hey! All the FBI has on you is that you were found in the second chamber, right? There’s no way they can convict you with that, right?]
"Suzy, even if I don’t get convicted of Civil Rights Violations against Leo in the American courts, I’ll still get shipped to Argentina for his Murder,” Tyler pointed out. “And maybe I’m being a little prejudiced about Latin American jurisprudence, but I really don’t want to try my luck in a foreign court on a Murder charge. My best bet is to find enough proof that it was someone else that no charges are pressed against me AT ALL.”
Suzy made an ‘oh, that makes sense’ whine.
"Hey, Suze, I was a little out of it when they found Leo. You said that you were the one who found the leak that overloaded the circuit that led you to finding the second chamber; where were you when they found the first chamber?”
[Well, I was with Linda Havoc, doing maintenance on my silt survey outposts. Usually, I do that with Leo, but he hadn’t been seen for days, and I was hella worried about him. Finally, it was getting dark, and doing underwater work after nightfall is just asking for trouble, and Linda offered to come along and help. Lennox had drones following us the whole time] then she gave Tyler the time and date.
Tyler used the time and date to locate the production footage files “Yeah, there you are.” <footage of Suzy and Linda scuba diving, moving large anonymous boxes into framework> “Hey, Suze- what’s that black plastic octagon thing that Linda’s lugging around?”
[Oh, that’s one of Linda’s big glamour projects: it’s supposed to be a shark repellant system that works by confusing their electroreceptors. She was thinking that it was dark enough that she might be able to field test it]
"That’s Linda all over,” Tyler groaned, “it’s not enough to test it in a nice, safe, statistically stable lab; NO she’s gotta do it where she could get sexy underwater footage of her with a shark!”
[TELL me about it,] Suzy grumbled, [she didn’t tell me about it until we were in the water; I was scared out of my wits that that thing would send sharks into a feeding frenzy!]
"Are sharks sent into feeding frenzies by having their electroreceptors overwhelmed?” Tyler asked. “I thought that that was triggered by the amount of blood in the water.”
[You’d have to ask Leo about that… but… anyway, he dropped once or twice that the jury’s still out on the exact trigger in sharks. But sharks aren’t the only predator that frenzy, and both an overabundance of prey and too much competition from other predators will do it]
"So, on the rough theory that both a lot of fish and too many sharks around will kick up the stimulation of their electroreceptors, it’s not too far-fetched that artificially stimulating sharks would trigger a feeding frenzy.”
[Something that I pointed out to Linda VERY LOUDLY as soon as we were back in the boat]
<footage of Suzy and Linda talking animatedly on the way back to the Diogenes> “Hey, Suzy, who are you calling?”
[Leo] Suzy said defensively. [I mean, I was worried! We hadn’t seen him for days, and he wouldn’t say where he was going, just that he’d be out of touch for a while, and… well, his texts were sort of… by the numbers…] Suzy did a classic teenage girl burn of embarrassment over being a cliché suspicious girlfriend.
<footage of Suzy and Linda talking animatedly as they got back to the Diogenes, the conversation, going on confrontation continuing onto the deck. Though Suzy never stopped pausing to look at her phone>
"Okay, Suzy, what are you and ‘Kim Probable’ talking about now?” Suzy just gave Tyler a steely ‘I don’t wanna talk about it’ glare. “Suuuzzzeee…” Tyler glared back at her.
[Okay, OKAY! I wanted to know if Linda knew where Leo was! I mean, he’d been missing a WEEK!]
"Suzy, why were you so worried about Leo? I mean, you were never that possessive before. And God knows, you had reason, with the way that Leo flirted with everything in a skirt.”
[That wasn’t it. It was the way that he up and disappeared that way]
"Hey, he left messages that he was heading off to Trinidad,” Tyler pointed out.
[Yeah- messages. TEXT messages,] Suzy counterpointed. [That is so not Leo’s style. If he was going off on his own again, he’d tell me, face to face. If only for the ‘warrior going into battle last kiss’ drama. And like I said, his follow-up messages were by the numbers. But that’s not the real thing]
"And you were talking about Leo milking it for the drama?”
[Ty, Leo’s Boston Whaler was still on the ship. And he didn’t take any of the Zodiacs. And there was no record of Leo launching anything with the winch. And Leo was so anal-retentive about his logs that he would have logged it if he’d launched anything new]
"Oh-Kay, that’s a reason to be worried,” Tyler granted her. “Why didn’t you talk to Dr. Chase or Mr. Newell?”
[I… didn’t want anything to be wrong with him,] Suzy said in a choked little girl voice.
<then the lights went out on the Diogenes. The sun had just gone down, but even with the magnificent Caribbean sunsets, it was almost impossible to see below-decks without electrical lights. The footage took on the slapstick farce of a Three Stooges short as the Wiz Kids and the crew and staff of the Diogenes fell over each other trying to find the source of the short> Tyler noted that Lennox had devoted several drones to following each of the Wiz Kids, Dr. Chase and Mr. Newell, and that Lennox already had many segments tagged for editing. It struck Tyler that many- no, most- of Lennox’s ‘humanizing’ events seriously stank of high school pranking, the sort that the less intelligently gifted had played to ‘take the brainiac down a peg’. Tyler had graduated from high school at age 12, and had many bitter memories of that brand of *ahem!* ‘humor’. On a tangent, Tyler wondered how many of her classmates were still in college- or the Army- or in jail.
<Then Glynis called out, “I found it!”>
<Flashing their Q-Lights, the near penlights with the adjustable beam and IR and UV settings, Suzy, Linda, Tom Chase and Mr. Newell followed Glynis into an infrequently-used lab that was more often used as casual storage. “The short’s behind that wall of boxes,” Glynis said.>
<“Whew!” Linda complained, making a face and waving her hand in front of her nose, “What a STINK! Smells like something DIED in here!”>
<Mr. Newell’s body language changed abruptly, going on guard. “Yes. It does.” He radioed to his Second at the Security Center, telling him that they had a situation in that lab, and to get the rest of the Security Detail there ASAP. Under Newell’s direction, the four Wiz Kids started carefully removing boxes, looking for the source of the stench. The source of the smell turned out to be an 8-foot-long agglomeration of components welded tightly around the exterior of a vaguely tubular core, with a tangle of cables and hoses leading to the lab’s sink and various sockets. Eight 20-liter plastic ‘jerrycan’ reservoirs jutted upside-down up from the main assembly.>
<”Here’s what happened,” Glynis said, pointing her light at where a high- power socket was covered by a mass of gluey gunk. “This reservoir here sprung a leak, and it shorted out this socket. But why didn’t it just trip the fuse for this lab?”>
<Tom beat Linda to examining the mess. “It smells like stem cell solution, like seawater with a hint of pork. Which would have short-circuited the socket, since human blood is almost identical to seawater.”>
<”Which you shouldn’t have touched without a nylon glove,” Newell said censoriously.>
<The Wiz Kids examined the device as best they could. Using her smartphone as a light, Suzy found an LED panel. “It’s a Status Monitoring Log,” she said. “It says that the procedure was initiated at 2334 hours GMT, eight days ago, and three days later, a serious error developed, followed by repeated attempts at restoring the subject to the guideline, resulting in escalating deviation from guideline, resulting in critical failure about 29 hours ago.” Then Suzy’s face fell and her eyes popped open wide. ”OMIGAWD!” she yelped, “LEO! LEO’S in there!”>
<”Oh, THIS again?” Linda groaned, rolling her eyes.>
<”No!” Glynis said, “LOOK!” she picked up a red sweatshirt from a pile on the floor near the apparatus. She unfolded it, revealing the logo of the Universidad de Buenos Aires, and then she picked up the fancy Breitling watch that Leo had recently gotten as a gift and showed it.>
<The Wiz Kids scrambled across the adaptation chamber, trying to figure out how to open it up.>
<”There’s a Gunnerson Hatch on this end!” Glynis reported. “That means that it’s under pressure, and we need a Gunnerson key to open it safely! But where IS it?” Glynis looked around frantically with her Q-Light.>
"Why are you guys trying to open it so hard?” Holly interrupted unexpectedly from over Tyler’s shoulder. “I mean, if he smells that bad, then he must already be dead.”
"Oh!” Tyler started and collected herself. “Well, you see Mittens, the Standards of Care- those are the rules that Paramedics and Firefighters and other Emergency Responders have to follow- say that you have to assume that a person in danger CAN be rescued, and you have to do everything you can to save them. Well, unless it’s obvious that they’re dead, like, their head’s been cut off or something. And all the Wiz Kids are required to take an EMT-1A course before they can be on the ship, so we’re oblig-er, we have to follow the Standards of Care.” Holly gave an ‘Oh’ of understanding.
Back to the footage, <”You mean THIS?” Suzy, using the wider, diffuse light of her smartphone found a red crowbar-like object hanging on the wall near the chamber>
[Y’know, I have no idea why Glynis didn’t find that,] Suzy said. [I mean, it was right there next to her]
<Suzy frantically tried to fit the key into the Gunnerson hatch, but fouled it up repeatedly. Finally, she got the key in properly, and she wrestled with the key in the hatch>
"Why are you having such a problem, Suzy?” Tyler asked. “Gunnerson hatches are designed to be simple but secure under high pressure.”
[HEY, I was UPSET, okay?]
<With a scream of frustrated rage, Suzy forced the hatch open>
[Besides, releasing the pressure on that thing was a bitch] Suzy added.
"Remind me, Suzy- is Linda’s MRI project designed to operate under high pressure?”
[Not really,] Suzy said. [But it’s designed to operate with Zero Emissions Bleed, either way, which results in many of the same design parameters]
"That means that they while the two things do different stuff, they have to be built the same way,” Tyler explained to Holly.
<the hatch opened, and a gurney slid out with what looked distressingly like a body bag on it. The black plastic bag was studded with sensor wires, cables, tubes, and ducting for a breather. Suzy madly tore off the wires and connectors, and undid the restraints and securing straps. Finally, she undid the main sealing slide and ‘unzipped’ the bag>
"Why is he in that bag?” Holly asked, peering at the screen over Tyler’s shoulder.
[It’s what’s called a ‘wash bag’, sweetie] Suzy explained. [Basically, it washes the body of the guy that’s being worked on, without getting the insides of the machine wet. Most of the stuff that’s removed this way comes out as poop or piss, but enough comes out through the skin and hair that you gotta wash them almost constantly, or they get all gunky and it clogs up the machine. As you can see, the bag is hooked up to hoses that are attached to the lab’s taps and sink]
Getting back to the footage, <As she unzipped the wash bag, Suzy leaned over the body, clearly hoping against hope. But she reacted with reflex revulsion as the body was revealed and staggered away. Glynis and Tom also reeled with disgust at the stench, and even Newell reacted. Suzy lurched over to the wall, and there was the sound of someone being violently ill. But Linda just gave Suzy a look of mixed pity and scorn. She stepped over to examine the body. “Well, if this IS Leo, he’s looked better…”>
[BITCH!] Suzy railed into the camera. [She didn’t get that SMELL, right in the face! GOD what a STINK! The absolute worst of shit, sick and DEATH, right in the face! ew, sorry, sweetie…] Suzy flinched when she realized that she’d cursed in front of a child [Dear GOD, I’m going to associate the sight of Leo’s body with that STANK for the rest of my life! I almost lost it when I saw the thing that they stuck you in!]
Tyler tried to steer the conversation away from the clearly painful memory, so she brought up another topic. “So, Suze, what’s the current story about when I disappeared? I mean, I’d been pretty out of it since Hughie… er, since la Isla Maldita, and with the electronarcosis they used, I’m amazed that I remember THAT!”
[Well, the last person who says that she talked to you was Glynis,] Suzy said. [She said that she wanted to talk to you, and made a kind of date in the Mud Room on Deck 4. But you never showed up.]
"I have NO IDEA what happened,” Tyler admitted. Then figuring that she had to ask, and might as well get it out of the way, Tyler asked, “So… Suze… you got a good look at the adaptation chamber they found me in. If it’s not too painful… how alike were they?”
Suzy’s face in the inset went hard, though tinged with regret. [Almost identical. With ONE difference: the Gunnarson hatch on your pod was rigged with a release latch- that worked from the inside]
The look on Suzy’s face haunted Tyler as she trudged through her physical therapy. Suzy’s face said that she didn’t want to believe it, but she’d seen it herself. Ironically, not thinking about what her hand was doing did wonders for her hand-eye coordination. She still threw a few blocks against the wall when she had a sudden overreaction, but it was still fewer. Tyler fiddled around with the implications of the classic Agatha Christie ‘Frame vs. Deliberate Misleading Self-Implication’ paradox. Still, as she ran the twisty logic of that sort of thing through her mind, one answer did pop to the fore- Q: why had she been captured and transformed? A: because the Renegade needed someone else to take the blame for what happened to Leo. As long as no one was blamed for his death, Leo’s murder would hang over all of the ‘Wiz Kids’. Publicity and pressure might force the show off the air, and everyone’s careers would be tainted by it.
But that begged the question: Why leave Leo’s body to be found that way? Why leave it in the pod, where it would obviously be murder-by-way-of-illegal-experimentation? Why not kludge that same kind of ‘escape hatch’ they’d foisted off on Tyler, as to make it look like a textbook illustration of why you don’t do that sort of thing to yourself? For that matter, whoever did it clearly had access to THX-1157, and it followed that they were using it. Kit-bashing, on the sly, a nanite suite from traces and a forced adaptation chamber to implement it required every ounce of genius they’d need, even without Lennox and his cyber-voyeur drones. So, besides being a turbo-charged super-genius, the Renegade was no doubt now a high-functioning Sociopath. If they’d been one before taking the THX was endlessly debatable. But why would a Sociopath leave Leo’s body around like that? Getting past Lennox and the usual security measures would be a snap! Why not just cook up some plastique and kludge together a detonator, strap it to Leo’s body, put the body on Leo’s Boston Whaler and send it out. When the boat was out of signal range of the Diogenes, a signal interrupt switch would detonate the explosive. Boom! The primary evidence of the crime would be destroyed, as would Leo’s boat. The explosion would draw sharks from miles around, and even blow the body into nice bite-sized pieces for their dining convenience. Leo’s disappearance would become a mystery, but there’d be no trace of murder. There’d be an uproar about it at first, but that would die down in time, and life would go on. For everyone but Leo. Even Tyler could come up with that face-saving scenario, and she wasn’t a sociopath. Well, at least not at the moment.
The only sufficiently cold-blooded reason she could think of to leave Leo’s body where it could be found, was that the Renegade wanted a huge stink that could sink the show. Was one of the Wiz Kids getting squeezed by the Quest Foundation bad enough that they’d kill, just to get out from under? Admittedly, Tyler had hated the *ahem!* ‘Voluntary’ CIT gigs at the Quest Science Summer Camp dog-and-pony show as much as the other ‘Wiz Kids’, and the unpaid public appearances, and the other ‘put up and shut up’ moves the Foundation had made; but KILL? Of course, Julian had been first in line for shafting Tyler and he didn’t like competition, so maybe the Foundation was playing real hardball with the other Wiz Kids?
No. It didn’t make any sense. If the Renegade was getting squeezed by Korman or Arcero or Baines- and it was all-too likely that they were squeezing at least one of the Wiz Kids- then they’d go after Korman or Arcero personally. This was… cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Then again, baffling mysteries like this can become much clearer, if you discard a false assumption. What if it wasn’t one of the Wiz Kids? What if Leo was the victim of a murder tricked up to look like an involuntary experiment? Leo may not have had money, but he had very wealthy- and powerful- contacts down in Argentina. If Leo had threatened either Arcero or Baines to get them off his back about something he’d come up with, maybe decided to play some real hardball, they may have decided to get rid of him, and discredit any complaints that the rest of the Wiz Kids might make. It could cost them this show, but they could simply retool it with a brand new cast of brilliant young chumps. The assumption was that on the Diogenes, it had to be one of the teen geniuses. But the Quest Foundation had access to the Malice Upgrade, to THX-1157, and they could get almost any tech-monkey to cobble the forced adaptation chamber together. And it would put an entire new spin on the all-seeing Lennox’s strange blindness regarding the strange doings. That is, if Lennox wasn’t the hatchet man himself. Was this what Jadis Diab-er, Frost was really looking for?
The only problem was who in their right mind would trust a sleazeburger like Lennox to keep mum about Murder?
No, there was another problem, the same problem all along: the problem with locked room mysteries is that anyone smart enough to come up with an effective one is also smart enough to know that they’re stupid! If Arcero or Baines wanted Leo dead, they’d just hire a professional to do it. Professional killers don’t craft baffling mysteries; they just walk up, put a few bullets in their target and leave. The simplest thing would be to just kill Leo, dump his body over the side, and let the sharks do the heavy lifting.
So, the logic returned back to its starting point: it had to be one of the Wiz Kids. A genius who was stupid enough to conduct an illegal experiment that would cost one guy his life, another his freedom, and blight the careers of everyone on board.
And where did Hughie Fienberg fit into all this? Tyler just couldn’t shake the idea that Hughie’s death was involved somehow. The timing was all wrong otherwise. Did something happen on la Isla Maldita that triggered Leo’s death? Had Leo been acting funny after la Isla Maldita? Tyler didn’t know; he wasn’t the shrewdest student of human behavior at the best of times, and the two weeks after Hughie’s death, Tyler had been a near-zombie. Leo could have grown two new heads and juggled them singing the Argentine national anthem, and Ty wouldn’t have noticed. NO! She was NOT going to force a THX fugue! Do it once and succeed, and you have more reason to do it again. The slippery slope may be a Logical Fallacy, but it was a Behavioral verity!
Suddenly, Leslie informed Tyler that she’d pretty much sleepwalked through her physical therapy session, and it was time to go out and get some sunshine, while there was any to get. Tyler helped with the stilted preparations for going out in the cold-but-still-warmer-than-winter. Then she walked out with the rest of the Yellowjackets. As she canted back her head and looked up at the sky, Becky told her. “Y’know, the VTOL’s doing its approach.”
"And watching it land is better than just standing around in the cold,” Ray pointed out.
"AND, it’s taking that laptop to Washington, the one that Jadis Diabolik was so interested in,” Becky added.
Okay, that was something that Tyler could get behind. If it got the FBI off her back and got her a little breathing room, she could give it a fond farewell.
"AND, we get to watch the Redcoats work, loading and unloading the VTOL, while we don’t,” Barbara said with a snide smile.
Now THAT Tyler could really get behind! With a tight snide smile to match Barbara’s, Tyler joined the Yellowjackets on a walk off the playground and over to the landing area, watching Ray and Luke throw a football back and forth. “HEY!” Tyler turned to see the Redcoats coming towards them in bullying formation. “What are YOU doing here, Freak?” Razor demanded.
"Freak,” Tyler sneered back, “Says the guy covered in living steel.”
"We’re just here to watch the VTOL land,” Becky said reasonably.
"And watch you losers do menial labor,” Mike said snidely.
Becky cut off the banter by saying, “Where’s Jubal? Usually, he’s here making sure that you guys don’t get yourselves into even more trouble.”
"He’s taking care of business,” Razor said. “Just don’t get in our way.”
Barb gave Razor a smug grin and started to say something, but Luke cut her off. “There it is!” He pointed up into the sky, and sure enough, an odd looking aircraft approached. It was a Bell-Boeing CMV-22b, a development from the V-22 ‘Osprey’. While the Osprey had been developed as Ship-to-Shore deployment and ground support, the CMV-22b was designed for ‘Carrier Onboard Delivery’; to wit, delivering personnel, materials and such to hard-to-reach destinations like carriers at sea- and isolated Air Force missile silos. Tyler had seen CMVs land and take off from the Diogenes a couple of times. But it occurred to Tyler as she watched the craft circle for final approach, the real thrill for the Yellowjackets wasn’t watching the VTOL land. It was in watching it lift off, and imagining that they were on board, finally going home.
The CMV came in, seemed to stall, and then the wings tilted, turning the props into lift rotors. It came down, and the technical sergeant went through the drill of vetting everyone who came off the plane. Tyler silently wondered which of the men who went through the process was the bonded courier, there to pick up her laptop.
"Okay, it’s going to be at least an hour before the VTOL lifts off again,” Becky said. “They have to do maintenance on it. We’ll be back then to see it go.”
As they turned to leave, Barbara asked Razor puckishly, “Well? Don’t you have barges to tote, and bales to lift?” Razor just gave her the ‘very not funny’ laugh and flipped her off.
An hour and a half later, which Tyler mostly spent playing catch with Jake using a specially constructed ball that they threw at speeds that almost broke the sound barrier, Becky announced that the VTOL was about to lift off. They huddled off to the landing pad in a group. Tyler wasn’t immune to needing a little encouragement on the ‘going home’ thing. Or at the very least ‘getting out of here’, her living arrangements being rather abstract at the moment. When they got there, Ray looked around and said, “What’s with the Watchdogs?” Indeed, there were four of the large, bright red power frames standing around the landing area.
Curious herself, Becky called in to Security, who told her that someone had requested them, citing a suspicion that one of the prisoners was going to try something. “Hey Razor!” Barbara called out.
The steel-jacketed Redcoat thug put down the large crate he’d been loading and sauntered over to the Yellowjackets. “What?” he asked with a very street blend of cockiness and wariness.
"Word is one of you yoyos is going to do something stupid,” Barb jeered. “And most of you are stupid, but let’s be honest, Razor, you take the prize for aggressive stupidity.”
Barb and Razor bantered back and forth for a bit in a way that suggested that Barb didn’t understand that Razor didn’t get that she really was insulting him, and that he thought she was flirting with him. Or at least that was Tyler’s take on the matter.
Then Jojo called out, “Hey Razor- on the stick!”
Razor gave Barb a dismissive smirk and sneered, “Maybe… I’m just gonna do THIS!” he snatched the football from Luke and threw it at an instrumentation dish so hard that it rattled the dish. Luke gave Razor an annoyed scowl and ran over to fetch the ball, ignoring the ‘Danger, Stay Away’ sign.
Becky, who’d been giving Razor the ‘this will be mentioned in reports’ glare, suddenly went wide-eyed and yelled out, “LUKE! NO! That’s a microwave guidance beacon!”
Luke stopped maybe a foot from the football, and turned with a ‘what’s a microwave guidance beacon?’ look of bewilderment. But almost immediately, the light on his shoulder started blinking, then went amber, then red.
Then Luke staggered, and Tyler felt something like an immaterial wave pass through her. Lights went out, and people around the landing pad started checking tablets and phones and watches. The Watchdogs lurched but immediately came back on their guard. Then a thick pea-soup gray-green smoke filled the area, but due to the configuration of the buildings, all the rotors did at their speed was keep the smoke from rising and keeping it a thick blanket against the ground.
As everyone was reacting to that, Razor reached over and pulled Holly off her feet. Holding the girl to his chest, he fled into the thick cloud. Perhaps Tyler’s experiences on the Diogenes had done something for her, after all. Her first reflex was to spring after him to rescue Mittens. Either Jake was of a similar reflex, or he simply followed her lead. Unfortunately, with their comparable strengths and corresponding lack of fine control, they both launched themselves high in to the air and overshot their ill-defined goal. Worse, they were both knocked out of their trajectories by repeated strikes of high-caliber autofire bullets.
Of course, with their internal reinforcement, the bullets were like being hit with baseballs: unpleasant, but bearable. Hitting the ground wasn’t fun, but they both got up to try to find out who’d shot them. But before they could spot the shooter, a 30-foot-tall giant wearing a thick woolen jacket over red scrubs walked out of the smoke.
Byron Wordsworth didn’t answer to ‘Zap’ willingly. But then, ever since he’d put on that stupid bucket helmet that his friend Hector swore up and down had belonged to some supervillain, he’d had one galling piece of stupidity after another rammed down his throat. The capper had been his ‘friends’ Hector, Mongo, Riff and Riff’s girlfriend Cleo swearing under oath that he’d coerced them into committing those robberies. Like Riff hadn’t held a razor to Byron’s grandmother’s throat. Then he’d been ‘cut a break’ and sent here to get these stupid electrical blasts under control, instead of being sent to the Ohio state super-lockup. And then, in yet another show of official idiocy, they’d shoved him on a crew with Razor and his band of losers.
And now, THIS.
Razor charged through the smokescreen, holding the little white girl, the one wearing the stupid kitchen gloves, to his chest. “What are you DOING?” Byron demanded.
"Getting while the getting’s good,” Razor said in his usual inane ‘movie tough guy’ rasp. Handing the girl over to Hubie, Razor molded that impossible living metal over his hands, forming the hand-razors that he loved shoving in people’s faces. With them, he hacked away at the neck thing that kept Hubie at a sane height. Almost immediately, Hubie grew to maybe 20 feet tall. Hubie turned and started to walk, but Razor smacked him on the shin. On a barked order, Hubie bent down and helped Razor tear himself out of the harness and left the girl with him. Then Razor sent Hubie out to do some serious damage. Once Hubie was out of the way, Razor chopped Jojo and Stretch out of their hobbles. On Razor’s order, Jojo zipped out into the smoke and came back with the Yellowjacket kid who was maybe, like NINE or something.
"What’s going on?” Byron barked, noticing that Razor hadn’t bothered to lop off the power jammer that Byron had to even go to the shower with on.
"We’re doing Jubal a big favor,” Razor said, clearly enjoying being in control of the situation. “Don’t worry,” he added, dragging Byron along by the harness, though never letting go of the squirming girl. “You’ll get your turn, too.”
Oh, that was SO comforting.
Razor dragged Byron and the girl out of the smoke over to where the VTOL had been warming up to take off. He nodded to Stretch, who kept the Air Force guys from closing that hatch. Jojo took out the Air Force guys as the guards were reacting to the fact that their guns wouldn’t be effective against Razor, and even if they were, Razor had meat shields. Stretch started yanking guys out of the VTOL. Then Jubal, who was wrestling with some guy over a briefcase, stopped tussling and looked gape-jawed at them. “What are you DOING?” he asked, aghast.
"Like you said, Jube,” Razor jeered with a big grin, “Seizing the day!”
Tyler fought to get up under the hail of bullets, which were ripping up her coat something fierce. Over the sound of the gunfire, she heard Jake making sharp noises that suggested that he wasn’t enjoying it either. Why were those idiots in the power armor shooting at them?
And then that hulking idiot giant tromped up and kicked her into a line of oil drums. And Tyler felt the THX state click into place, and she didn’t even try to stop it.
The giant, ‘Hubie’ was free. It followed that Razor had cut off his choke collar, and further that Razor was pulling some kind of harebrained escape attempt with the other Redcoats. Most likely, they were hijacking the VTOL looking to force the pilot to take them somewhere. The probability of the escape being successful was low, but the possibility that Tyler would be blamed somehow, unless she was a material factor in preventing the escape, was high. Razor had taken Holly, most likely as a hostage. There was a high probability that one of the other Redcoats would try to take Luke hostage as well. Children make wonderful hostages: they’re small, light, weak, easily intimidated, and they provoke protective reactions in adults. The taking of hostages increased the probability of a violent, possibly lethal outcome significantly. The chances of Jake, Mike, Barbara and especially Ray trying to rescue either of the younger children were high, but their interference would complicate things for the worse.
Luke’s EMP hadn’t been powerful enough to completely fry the circuitry of the Air Force gear, otherwise the VTOL would have simply stopped. However, it appeared that the Air Force’s instrumentation was rebooting, leaving the Watchdogs confused. Why they’d opened fire on Tyler and Jake was uncertain.
The most important thing was to prevent the VTOL from taking off with Luke and Holly aboard. Keeping the Watchdogs from firing into the smoke cloud, and possibly hitting the VTOL or the Yellowjackets on the ground, was the next highest priority, a necessity for safely getting to the VTOL.
Razor was probably using Hubie to cover the VTOL from the Watchdogs, either not trusting that the smokescreen would do it, or simply not factoring that in. Tyler could either divide her attention between the giant and the power frames- or she could use one against the other. Size-shifters were routinely very difficult to damage, but even they had to cope with the three banes that kept Anime Giant Robots from being a reality: Balance, Lower Extremity Weight Focus, and Footing. Furiously calculating factors, Tyler yelled out, “JAKE! Hit His Right Foot! NOW!”
Jake responded immediately, and they managed to both come down on the arch of Hubie’s foot at the same time, breaking both his metatarsal bones and the asphalt under his shoe. Hubie screamed, his foot buckled under him and he came down on two of the Watchdogs.
After shoving the passengers out of the hatch, Razor pulled the pilot out of the seat and handed the headset to Byron. “WHAT?” Byron demanded.
"Whaddya THINK? Razor snarled, “FLY IT!”
"WHAT?” Byron bleated, “Are you shitting me?”
"You told us you could FLY! So FLY!”
"I told you that I took some FLYING LESSONS!” Actually, Byron wanted to take flying lessons, but they were very expensive. The best he’d done was some time on a Flight Simulator at the junior college near him.
Razor held a sharp-edged hand against Byron’s neck and snarled, “Then I don’t have a lot of use for you, do I?”
Byron immediately realized that Razor would kill him, just to vent his frustration. And then he’d try to fly the damn plane himself, crash it and kill everyone on the landing pad. “Okay! Jeezus, OKAY!” Byron slipped the headset on, despite the fact that any input from the air traffic controller was pointless, and settled into the pilot’s seat. And he immediately realized that he had absolutely no idea as to how to fly this thing. He thought furiously for moment.
"Well? FLY!” Razor yelled.
"SHIT,”Byron said, scowling at a pivoting slide. “We can’t go up!”
"Why NOT?” Razor asked, holding his hand against Byron’s neck, the razor-edge just barely nicking it.
"See this?” Byron pointed at the pivot slide, “That’s the tiltwing control. It’s MANUAL. As in, you have to do it BY HAND. If it was automatic, I could just push a button and it would tilt.”
"If I can’t tilt the wings, we’ll go up… but we’ll just hang there in the air, and not go forward.”
"SO? Tilt it then!”
"Look, when they were first testing these things, there were a lot of crashes, because the pilots couldn’t get the tilt right,” Byron explained. “The guys they got flying these things are required to have a special license, just for that. I haven’t even read the book on how to tilt these things!” Razor started to react, but Byron headed him off. “BUT, there is a way that we can take off.”
"These things were designed for very short take-off as well as vertical take-off. If you guys remove those-” he pointed at a group of fuel barrels that were blocking the runway, “- I can tilt the wings while we’re still on the ground and take off like a normal airplane.”
"The prop wash is keeping that smokescreen you laid down in place, remember?” Byron reminded him. “If you get on the stick NOW, you can get that done while I’m tilting the wings, and we can get OUT of here before they decide to SHOOT us all!”
Razor snarled and looked around for an alternative, but couldn’t find any. “C’mon!” he growled as he set his elbow under Holly’s chin and passed Luke over to Stretch. “If anyone sees us, just use these as shields.”
With that, Razor climbed out of the VTOL, taking Holly with him. Jojo beat both Razor and Stretch to the barrels, but he wasn’t strong enough to move the barrels without a dolly. Stretch had no problems handling both Luke and his barrel, but Razor found handling Holly awkward. Not difficult, she was just a little girl, but awkward.
Byron made himself wait an entire 60 seconds, in case Razor did anything paranoid like turn back to check on him. Then he pulled the stick back and took the VTOL up 100 feet, and held it there.
This changed the way that the prop wash affected the smokescreen, and Razor, Jojo and Stretch found themselves out in the open without a way out. “ZAP!” Razor screamed, “I’m gonna KILL you when I get my hands on you!”
"Not that I’m complaining,” the pilot said as he got to his feet and started leveraging himself into the copilot seat. “But why did you turn on them, having gone this far?”
"Because I didn’t ‘go this far’,” Zap growled, taking the headset off and handing it to the pilot. “Like I keep telling people, I didn’t want ANY of this! I got dragged into this, just like I got dragged into court. Now get on the radio and tell the tower or whatever to not shoot us, ‘kay?”
There was a change in the pitch of the rotor blades, and the VTOL lifted up, scattering the smoke screen. Tyler took in the situation that revealed itself.
Now faced with two fronts. Razor and Stretch are trying to figure out their next move, which will probably be to try to force an accommodation by threatening the hostages. Jojo will most likely try to run away. But Razor is seriously out of his Area of Control, and is all too likely to hurt Holly, figuring that he still has Luke as a hostage. Allowing the Watchdogs to fire complicates the situation and threatens the Yellowjackets, who are already starting to act as best they can. Barb is especially at risk, as her position will be unpredictable, she is a high possibility for being hit by a stray round and she is no physical match for Jojo.
First Priority: Neutralize the Watchdogs.
Second Priority: Neutralize Jojo.
Third Priority: Get Luke away from Stretch. Razor is significantly less likely to harm Holly if she is his only hostage.
Focusing all her energy into moving quickly, Tyler zipped off to one of the two remaining Watchdogs in less than three seconds. Managing to stop herself by redirecting her energy into a protective shell, she slammed into the power frame, knocking it off balance but not off its feet. Taking advantage of that, she opened the Ammunition Feed to one of the .30 autoweapon, specifically the one firing armor piercing rounds and engaged the cleaning safety, and then she did the same for the autoweapon firing the shock rounds. She sprinted over to the other Watchdog, which was just reacting to this, and repeated the procedure.
Then shifting her energy back over to speed, Tyler matched Jojo speed for speed. Then she gripped him by the back of his head, and used the fact that her baseline strength was significantly greater than his to steer him. Tyler steered Jojo right into Stretch, who was grappling with Barb, who in turn was trying to get Luke away from him. Tyler disengaged Luke from Stretch and handed him to Barb. Barb immediately took Luke over to Becky, who reflexively shielded him with her body.
Tyler gripped Stretch’s arm and applied her force into moving her in the most tactically advantageous direction: upwards. Stretch would focus mainly on keeping his footing, rather than anything more effective. But just as Stretch was able to get his arm around a concrete pylon to anchor him, Jake charged into him, body-checking him so he lost his grip on the pylon. Tyler dropped Stretch, handing him over to Jake. Jake proceeded to tie Stretch into knots, until the elastic punk looked like a wad of taffy.
Jake and Tyler bumped fists, slightly knocking each other back. Barb zoomed up to them, and they turned their attention on getting Holly away from Razor. Razor was in the middle of a full-fledged panic attack, looking every which way, trying to spot something he just couldn’t find. Then Holly managed to pull one of her mittens off, and pointedly took a grip on Razor’s arm.
Razor let out a screech like he was being burned. And from the fumes and metal dripping from his hand, that phrase was all-too apt. Razor dropped Holly. Holly landed lightly, spun on the ball of her foot and gave Razor a wide swinging slap on his cheek, which literally left an imprint in the metal you could see. Razor whimpered and pulled back, tripping over himself and falling. He scrambled back, sobbing in horror as Holly advanced on him, her hand outstretched and a scowl of anger on her face.
But Barb rescued Razor by zooming up, picking up Holly, and sprinting her safely out of his reach. Or put Razor safely out of Holly’s reach. But as Razor started to get up, Ray let out a powerful electric burst that knocked him clear off his feet again. Razor tried to get up again, but Ray just said in a loud, ‘I’m tired of your shit and looking forward to kicking your ass’ voice, “STAY DOWN, ASSHOLE! You’re blown, you got no cards, and your ass is hanging out a mile! You’re perfectly grounded, and that skin of yours is a damn good conductor. So, you can either lay face down on the blacktop, or I can fry you alive inside your own skin! You got to the count of Ten to decide! One!”
Ray only got to ‘Three’ before Razor gave it up and lay down on the asphalt.
The adults had wrapped their collective heads around what had just happened, so guns were lowered. Questions were being asked. But as the THX faded away, one thing was paramount in Tyler’s mind: I can fly!
Taking careful note of where the VTOL was, just hovering there, Tyler lifted off and rose to about 500 feet up. Then she just hung there for a while, taking in the wonderful blue and reveling in the feeling of being free.
Then there was a powerful jolt, and Tyler was barely able to erect a defense on pure reflex before she hit the ground. Tyler felt the ground hit and luckily passed out immediately, before the pain could set in.